10. Chopin: Berceuse

Frederick Chopin: Berceuse, Andante, Opus 57, 1843.

Listen to the author reading the text

The melody is very similar to the other two Chopin D flat pieces included here, as if to say that a sentence contains multiple anagrams, and no one strainer catches the river’s only gold. The simple melody, essentially a theme and variations, is increasingly embroidered with jeu perlé, or pearly play, the filigreed necklace of ascending thirds, descending triplets, and broken sixths which get more and more frenetic until suddenly subsiding into the simple theme again, as Chopin uses his various techniques to impress, but more to cleanse, to assuage: the assuages of sin. In six years he would be dead, at thirty-nine.

As I mentioned a continent ago, Chopin has embroidered the tapestry of the melody out of the rug of the left hand accompaniment, the ultimate example of a lefthanded compliment. Possibly a left-handed complement. You always wonder where melodies come from. Here is one example. Another, also mentioned before, is from the left hand of Copland or Brahms. No one will discuss this, but Brahms has more inspiration in his throwaway unheard left-hand accompaniment than dreamt of in our musicals. As Tom Lehrer sings, “When in doubt: plagiarize: let no one else’s work escape your eyes,” a song about Lobachevsky, a great mathematician himself accused of plagiarism, which song Lehrer admitted in his routine that he plagiarized from Danny Kaye’s roulade about Stanislavsky, who himself felt that the best way to deal with a famous line was to think about a different line. I am reminded of the Dean of Boston College, who, in response to a plagiarism scandal, delivered an anti-plagiarism commencement address which he had plagiarized. Jason Epstein told me indignantly around that time that I couldn’t rewrite The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because it would be plagiarism, a month before his son’s first novel was revealed to be plagiarized, justice thus revealing itself to be as much prosaic as poetic.

I’ve resisted the temptation to shove the increasingly frenetic trellis of the treble into the party-guest drone of the drab bass, thus choking off the lush cataract of its cascades and flutters: keeping the bass steady involves either slowing it down so the fleeting treble is allowed to radiate while turning the slower passages into lifeless monologues, or speeding up the slower parts until the humming treble tracks turn into a train wreck. The constant struggle between steady bass and a high melody (which adds more and more notes which you have to fit in to the allotted window) begs for rubato.

Rubato was Chopin’s notion that you could take any liberties of tempo with the right hand as long as the left hand was steady, as long as everyone met at the end. This “pulling” of the melody is also a feature of Viennese music and is used to great satiric effect by Richard Strauss in mocking or tipping his hat to the waltzes of the unrelated Johann Strauss.

But in Chopin’s day, rubato was perhaps the most effective technique to let music speak as people spoke, that is, to vary the speed based on audience feedback, the mood of the night. As a pianist, you can feel the crowd, and you know intuitively how to surprise it, or lull it. Without this freedom, music is like a tightly built house, brittle and infested with germs. Tempo, like a room, needs to breathe, to let in the world and the night.

The human heartbeat, that great arbiter of tempo, dictates that the slow beginning shouldn’t be too slow, nor the lyric tremolo sixths lose their shimmer to excess speed—that lingering glimpse of the fluttering curtain just before sleep should be thick and sparkling, like lethargy, not a thin-lipped, gated, fated rush of adrenaline, which would be the antithesis of somnolence. Marcel in Combray does not gallop to sleep, but slips drowsily into the anise of anesthesia.

After a while the simple melody comes back again, and then a strange note is introduced, almost alien to the calm of the piece. While not quite Mozart’s subdominant note, used to signal the coming of the end, the effect is the same, Chopin’s creative homage to Mozart. And so the lullaby subsides into silence.

The second-to-last note is held a long time to give the pianist time to follow Chopin’s instructions, which are to let that chord fade away into the last chord. In order to do this, you simply lift up the pedal slowly, which fades the sound gradually, always risking that too dismissive a foot will let the note disappear completely at a time when it would ruin the calm you’ve worked towards, an example of how important pedaling is to the music, and how pedals might as well be stamens.

I try to keep the simple six-note accompaniment from getting lost underneath all of Chopin’s luxuriate treble inventions, as it is the source, the Moldau, to Chopin’s variations, and here at the end, the duple voices of the accompaniment and the melody itself merge into one chord, the third note from the end, and then, together at last, slide into night.